Check out the coolest moment from last Friday’s brand new episode of Continuum. We’re halfway through the final season of this time-warping cop show, and it still has the power to deliver some really neat character moments. But Continuum is also falling prey to television’s worst habits when it comes to time travel.
First off, the coolest moment, as seen above. The major subplot of “Power Hour” has to do with Julian, the teenager who’s destined to grow up to be the anti-corporate terrorist leader Theseus. Julian has been freaked out ever since he learned that his future self is responsible for killing untold tens of thousands of people in uprisings against corporate overlords like his stepbrother Alec.
And Julian tries to burn his writings, the famous manifesto that puts him on the track to becoming a leader. But immediately afterwards, it turns out that someone has already published the works of Theseus online—and it’s Curtis, the ex-member of the anti-corporate group Liber8 from the future, teaming up with the mother of Edouard Kagame, the future Liber8 leader who’s just been born.
So Julian is kind of stuck with the words he wasn’t even sure he wanted to write. But unexpectedly, Alec, who’s supposed to become Julian’s arch-enemy in the dark dystopian future, tells Julian that he really liked the manifesto, and it was beautiful. And maybe if Alec doesn’t become an evil corporate overlord, then Julian won’t have to become a monster to fight him. It’s a lovely moment between two characters who always deserved to share more screen time together.
The rest of the episode is OK... Kiera and Garza use invisible future super-suits to get inside the secret facility where the super-soldiers from the future are building some kind of massive device that appears to be a time-machine of some sort. Kiera almost blows the device up until she realizes that it could get her home—and then she makes a huge mess trying to keep Garza from blowing it up anyway. In the resulting fighting, Lucas is killed.
And meanwhile, Kellogg, whose future self is the leader of those super-soldiers in a super-dark, extra-dystopian future, gets one of the super-soldiers as his own personal bodyguard. He gets hauled into the police station to talk to Carlos, who has nothing to pin on him, and then lounges around with his cute new bodyguard. But then Kiera shows up and tells him that Lucas is dead. And she points out that if nobody can trust Kellogg, then maybe Kellogg can’t trust his future self, either.
(Which only brings to mind the question—why does Kellogg need to trust his future self? As with Future Alec, who sent Kiera and Liber8 back in time, there’s no reason for Future Kellogg to care one way or the other. The timeline that Future Kellogg comes from is probably gone at this point, or soon will be, and that future version of Kellogg will never even get to know what becomes of his schemes. Unless, of course, the hints that they can send Kiera home mean that they’ve finally invented a way to visit other timelines, or restore timelines that have been invalidated due to time travel.)
Which brings me to the problem with time-travel on television—television is an open-ended medium, where movies are closed-ended. A time-travel movie can present a neat closed loop, or a single set of conundrums, and then tie everything off with a bow. But a television series needs to keep telling stories, or expanding the same story outwards, week after week.
Back in the day, time-travel on television was pretty much a series of one-offs. You had shows like Voyagers! or classic Doctor Who, where every trip through time was a simple visit to history or another time or place, and then the story was over and nobody ever thought about it again. Star Trek, for most of its life, would feature random time-travel adventures that had no lasting impact, and the rules changed every single time.
But today’s television is more serialized, meaning that time travel has to build into an ongoing story, and each trip through time has to matter. That means a lot more mythos, including big mysteries like “Who are the Freelancers?” which need to be paid off (and are frequently a bit disappointing when we learn the truth.) The characters have to keep learning new stuff, and layers of intrigue have to get peeled back over and over again.
And with time-travel, more mythos means more time travelers, or more complicated time-paradoxes and conundrums. (Continuum made the wise choice, early on, to clarify that this is a universe where each time-traveler creates a brand new timeline, so there could be no paradoxes as such.) More mythos frequently means revisiting the actual same points in time over and over again, with added layers of wackiness each time.
But another huge pitfall of time-travel television comes from the ever-present temptation to give characters a destiny—it’s a way to have prophecies, like fantasy narratives, but without any scrolls or magical seers. Instead, you can have someone either travel back from the future or see the future, and discover that one character is destined to become a dictator or a hero or whatever. This is part of how Heroes got so tangled up with its future visions over time. There’s an ever-present temptation to get over-invested in preventing, or fulfilling, a particular vision of the future.
(Which is why Continuum does get points for having Alec realize he can choose not to be the monster from Kiera’s future, even if it also loses half a point for having its characters so frequently misunderstand the rules of time travel—like with poor Emily, who seems to think that if she’s not the mother of Jason, Alec’s child from an alternate timeline, then she and Alec are Not Meant To Be. That’s just silly.)
Most of all, time travel in an ongoing, semi-serialized narrative, tends towards a danger of over-explaining or over-elaborating. Time travel isn’t a story, it’s a plot device, and when plot devices become more important than characters or big thematic ideas, then they start to become excessive. I’m actually not opposed at all to stories that are plot-driven, or all about the characters trying to resolve a particular problem or achieve a particular goal—but a plot device is not a plot.
And on the one hand, I’m still enjoying Continuum—but on the other hand, I’ve sort of given up on trying to understand the plot, or what’s actually at stake at this point. In retrospect, I lost the thread of Continuum in the scene last season where Kiera confronts the members of Liber8 with the knowledge that Alec created a new timeline to save his dead girlfriend, and Lucas spends five minutes clutching his head and going “WHAT???!”. At this point, I’m not sure who the Traveler is, or what Curtis’ scheme is, or whether Future Kellogg can realistically have any plan for the world of 2015 that even makes any sense. It’s all sort of a muddle, and the wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels thing has become just sort of a spinning blur. What’s especially sad is that Continuum had very specific things to say about corporations and anarchists, and their views on the future of our world—and especially corporate control over the police—and those ideas have been lost at this point.
The best you can say about a lot of television time travel is that it’s fun if you don’t think about it too much. But when time travel (which is perhaps best suited to a closed-end, one-shot storyline in a lot of cases) gets expanded out into the increasingly serialized world of television, then a lot of TV’s tendencies towards endless layers of mystery, fate and Rube Goldberg constructions tend to create a temporal catastrophe.